Sunday, October 16, 2011

How green is my valley?

Image from

The South Wales Valleys are a curious and scarred countryside. From one viewpoint they can be seen as a manifestation of community, of a strength through industry that (in most versions of the story) was killed by Thatcher who cared nothing for the consequences. From another, they can resemble a post-apocalyptic landscape, a pertinent reminder of how it's possible to trash an area bigger than London for lack of care of a different sort. A drive up the Rhondda will give you as good as any sense of these, not necessarily conflicting, perspectives.

The Heads of the Valley tends more to the post-apocalyptic; it's new dual carriageway cuts a swathe through the spoil heaps on which even tussock grass is never quite fully established. The road links  Abergavenny to the Neath valley, skirting a list of the towns synonymous with our industrial heritage: Blaenavon, Ebbw Vale, Merthyr Tydfil. It's a bleak drive, the sense of failed regeneration felt as keenly in the empty industrial units as in the bald and blackening moorland. The quintessential highlight is an ASDA superstore that overlooks Merthyr's Gurnos estate, a place once described as the UK's capital of economic inactivity.

I've been travelling this road for twenty-five years, and not a lot has changed. Except that is for the Glynneath; an area that, from a landscape perspective at least, has been gradually rejuvenating. There is more tree planting here - sure, a lot of it's commercial, but it's sensitively done - the canal has been renovated too; there are boat trips from Resolven and the river is clean enough for trout and sewin. It may be that this particular valley was spared the worst of industrial despoliation - I don't pretend to know its history - but whatever it's past, I've always regarded it as a model for what the other Valleys might eventually become.

So why, oh why have they covered it turbines!

Covered is an exaggeration, but as always seems to be the case, they pick the best, the wildest, the most open landscape to site these monstrosities. Drive now into the one valley that seemed to have come through and the first thing you see is a hillside of tri-blade propellers. And if you're like me, every other time you pass, not one of them will be turning.

Not that I'd be more inclined to love them if they were. I've long hated wind farms, and I'm unashamed in my view that they despoil our landscape, that this matters deeply and that the putative benefits don't outweigh the aesthetic impact. The turbines that have been installed across Wales can be seen over thousands of square miles; their impact is far greater than the land they stand on.

The journalist Will Self, wrote this week in praise of windfarms - or rather of the development of the countryside as a constantly evolving and functional space. He argues that virtually all our landscape is man-made; that when he took a three-day trek from London to Newhaven he hardly saw anyone - though quite why that's relevant I don't know - that there's a deal of hypocrisy in our views of the countryside. And in that regard he's right. But overwhelmingly I regard Self's view is an oh so clever analysis, typical of metropolitan intellectuals who like to sneer at the commuting middle classes of Sussex.

Frankly, I could sneer at people who think a three-day walk across the Home Counties makes them an expert on the value of landscape. What's more - and this is particularly telling of Self's article - I have little regard for the views of people who have only viewed turbines from afar. Before anyone sets about justifying them, I'd suggest they go stand underneath a 165ft tower, and that to reach it they walk one of the service roads that have been gouged through the forests and hillsides; that they take time to look away from the blades and compare the view without them, before excusing their presence.

To be fair to Will Self he's not presenting himself as a lover of the great outdoors, but to my mind, his argument gives insufficient value to wilderness - indeed, he questions its very concept. In terms of pastoral England, he might be right, but I'd bet a lot of cash that he's never been to Plynlimon, or Hyddgen (see photo left) - both of which have an intrinsic value in their very remoteness, and both of which are seriously under threat. What Self's argument fails to address is that it is ancient and naturally important landscapes like these that are the most likely sites for wind farms in Wales.

My drive through Glynneath made me sad. According to Self, that's sentimentality; he'd say the turbines merely continue a tradition of utilising the land effectively. I think that's intellectual bollocks, fuelled by a certain philistinism toward nature. To me, they're a lost opportunity; yet another scar on a landscape that's suffered enough. Strange analogy that it is, they felt like an addict relapsing.


  1. It is the gift of an artist to be compassionate about all things, from painting to writing ..wind turbines included. We love our landscape and I agree about the wind turbines.."their impact is far greater than the land they stand on". And like you..rarely do I see them moving.

    Now for something even more cruel...a turbine buried in our sea, in the Bay of Fundy in Canada where there is discussion on whether the whale found dead might have been involved in the broken blades incident.

    Oh what "they" do to our wonder the protests.

    But the writer can write, and the listener will evaluate the message.

    "Will Self" seems to have the most appropriate reverse.

  2. Wales has long been a sacred place to my wife and me so we will be saddened to see it pimpled with wind turbines. To my mind the most logical place for windfarms is out at sea. It is windier, there is more space and they can be combined with hydro-generators.

  3. There is so much debate about wind turbines... Countryfile last night had one. I have always said that if I had been given the choice of a housing estate, albeit a very nice one, in the fields behind my house, and several wind turbines, I'd have gone for the latter. I don't find them offensive, and you could argue that I don't know what I'm talking about since the nearest is out in the North Sea, visible from Hunstanton sea front given the right conditions. I have stood underneath one, our nearest Waitrose has one at the edge of its car park, the techno place at Swaffham. I stand and gaze in amazement at it, hear the noise, none of it bothers me. The sight of previous green fields with turbines on isn't an abomination to me, nor the amount that are going to be built off the coast of Essex. I find the technology amazing, how it all works fascinates me. It seems obvious to me that they would be built in wild places, little to stop the wind they need. I don't find them ugly, but majestic and beautiful. But you will probably argue I'm talking out of my backside, since they're not in my back yard. But I wouldn't object if they were.

  4. What I love most about this post is the passion.

    I find the valleys an interesting place. I've a number of friends who live in the area and it reminds me a little of where I live now. But I think it has a very peculiarly welsh strangeness about it, which I mean in the most complicated way possible. When I think of the valleys I always think of the young Manic Street Preachers, in Blackwood, dreaming of rock and roll and America.

    I'm don't know how I feel about the wind farms. They don't interupt the view in the same way that Pylons do. And they do have a futuristic and clean image in my head when I look at them. I think when it is the odd few in the distance, then it doesn't look so bad, and they make strangely inspiring places to drive to in the middle of the night (I had a strange youth). However I would hate to see them spread in any great abundance across the 'desert of wales'.

  5. Meant 'complimentary', hopefully obviously!

  6. I hate them on the land and kind of like them on the sea... go figure?
    on the land..they look...hummm rather untidy and out of sorts.....

  7. Maybe we should consider going back to the days before we had electric and enjoy going to bed at dark and getting up when the rooster crows.

  8. I loathe the dratted things. Flying over Spain you can see them on what seems like every hill crest...and they've desecrated Lake Nicaragua by putting up these monstrosities alongside.
    Brother in law, chartered electrical engineer, says they give off 'dirty' electricity which costs as fortune to put into the they are, as I've always suspected, a con as well as an aesthetic crime.

  9. An interesting piece. Energy production has always been an expensive business and in the past that has been at the expense of peoples' lives and the environment in which they live. In comparison, wind turbines seem comparatively soft - but I agree with you in that it is unfair that an area which was ravaged by the last phase of energy production should have to deal with this one as well. I tend to favour the Kensington and Chelsea Nuclear Power Plant option myself.

  10. Hello Mark,
    Just received a heads up from Kath, and she suggested after my last blog post,
    to introduce myself. So er hello

  11. I don't really mind them in the sense that if you accept that we NEED electricity, then we need a means to produce it.

    In my job I get to visit lots of power stations and having been to gas, coal and nuclear installations I can honestly say that if we have to have something to produce electricity then I'd rather have a wind farm on the hill opposite my house than a power station.

  12. If this says Anonymous it is me - Cait O'Connor - for some reason it will not allow me access to comment under my email address which is fairly new - should I inform you of it Mark?

    Anyway.....thank you for your good wishes....

    I have mixed feelings about these wind thingies. I actually think in small doses they look rather beautiful but I would definitely not want the whole of Wales to be covered by them. Wales has always been exploited for whatever - valleys were flooded in the Elan Valley to supply water to England for example. Farms and huge areas of beautiful mountain taken over to make army ranges....etc....

  13. Sorry, totally disagree with your views on windfarms. They may not be the solution to our carbon addicted lifestyle, but I think they are part of the solution. Once we have worked out better ways (eg tidal power) we can unbolt them and recycle the materials and the landscape will be back as it was. I do not think you can say the same about any other means of energy production.

    Siting them off-shore pushes up the price of production.

    1. If you think "unbolting" them is that simple you haven't done much research. Thousands of older turbines sit abandoned in America. The cement pads full of rebar are pragmatically impossible to remove. Access road scars would remain, anyhow. I think wind-pushers simply care more about people and cities than nature, which is a crime against nature itself.

  14. If vandals ran amok through Europe's museums, splattering wind turbine shapes in white industrial paint on historic landscape art, there would be instant outrage. But when the same desecration occurs on a much larger scale in REAL landscapes, it's "green" progress? How did values get so twisted?